Postsecondary Education – Participation and Dropping Out: Differences Across University, College and Other Types of Postsecondary Institutions

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by Danielle Shaienks, Tomasz Gluszynski and Justin Bayard


Formal education beyond the secondary level is a worthy investment as it holds widely recognized benefits for the individual as well as for society. At the individual level, it increases lifetime earnings, allows for more stable employment that is often reported to provide better satisfaction and shorter and less frequent spells of unemployment. At the societal level it leads to higher productivity, increased civic engagement and lower chances of dependability on social assistance.

Consequently, as increasing numbers of individuals pursue postsecondary education, it is crucial that those who decide to pursue this investment are able to do so successfully. Dropping out of postsecondary education has negative impacts on the individual and society. Although studies show that those with some postsecondary education enjoy better labour market outcomes than those with only secondary education, they do not experience labour market outcomes of those who have completed postsecondary education.

Dropping out of postsecondary education is also costly. The individual incurs costs associated with education (lost tuition and other expenses) and forgone earnings (opportunity cost). Given that governments also contribute to postsecondary costs, incompletion also represents a loss of investment.

Thus far, Canadian literature on postsecondary education dropouts has not accounted for failed attempts in pursuing postsecondary education. In other words, an individual would not be considered a dropout if he or she dropped out of numerous postsecondary education institutions but did graduate, either prior to or after these failed attempts. Such longer pathways affect the overall stock of postsecondary education graduates and carry potentially high inefficiencies and associated costs.

The purpose of this paper is to capture and profile postsecondary education dropouts from three different types of postsecondary education – university, college and other types of institutions1 . It compares them with graduates from these three types of institutions.

This perspective allows for a more accurate measure of occurrences and rates of dropping out from Canadian postsecondary education institutions. Additionally, these results identify groups of people who may have experienced more difficult transitions in their pursuit of postsecondary education as indicated by the fact that they experienced at least one episode of dropping out before or after obtaining a credential.

This method of examining dropouts carries some limitations, however. It assumes that switching types of educational institutions is equivalent to dropping out. Switching postsecondary education institutions (for example from college to university or vice versa) might be desired in order to find the right educational fit and could avoid a permanent dropout episode. However, because of incurred costs of not completing the initially chosen type of program, these cases of dropping out carry a cost due to inefficiencies in obtaining postsecondary education credentials.

The report is structured in four parts. It first provides information about methods and definitions used in this analysis. Second, the report profiles dropouts, graduates and continuers along numerous demographic, family and school characteristics. Thirdly, it creates a multivariate profile of dropouts, where multiple characteristics are analyzed simultaneously. Lastly, it summarizes the findings.

Note :

  1. The other type of postsecondary institution includes publicly-funded technical institute, trade/vocational school, private business school, private training institute or any other school above high school e.g. police academy, firefighters training etc. University colleges are also included in other type of institution because the type of program attended was difficult to assess (university program or college program).